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In modern times, it is not unusual for people to wonder what, if anything, will archeologists of the future (human or otherwise) will learn about our civilization from various artifacts we leave behind.

Some even take steps to preserve modern objects in a way that they're findable and interpretable tens of thousands of years in the future (e.g. nuclear waste warnings). In some ways, this might be considered a sophisticated form of geocaching or letterboxing.

Question: What is the earliest evidence of such 'preserve-objects-for-distant-future-discovery' behavior?

I am mostly curious about the earliest conception of the idea that civilizations have finite lifespans, are potentially discovered later, and that the inhabitants of such civilizations might be able to leave messages among the civilization ruins for future discoverers.

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    No idea what the earliest is, but I'd be surprised if it's earlier than the industrial revolution. Possibly even no earlier than post-WW2. Insofar as I'm aware, the notion that we might trigger some global calamity that could kill us all only became mainstream after the invention of nuclear weapons. – Denis de Bernardy Aug 17 at 18:34
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    The notion that civilizations come and go is as old as civilizations... The ancients most assuredly were curious about ruins they found and understood what they were. – Jimmy Fix-it Aug 19 at 3:34
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    "I'm not illegally disposing nuclear waste, I'm simply geocaching." – GittingGud Aug 19 at 7:20
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Coins, dedications, and other 'ritual' objects have been buried in the foundations of buildings since prehistory. The function of these artefacts is unclear, but they do not appear to have been placed there for future generations.

What you are looking for is usually called a 'time-capsule', and as the Wikipedia article observes:

A time capsule is a historic cache of goods or information, usually intended as a deliberate method of communication with future people, and to help future archaeologists, anthropologists, or historians.


Wikipedia also has a list of time capsules, broken down by country. The oldest example on this list seems to be the Samuel Adams and Paul Revere time capsule. This was located in a cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House, and is:

... believed to have been buried in 1795 by then-Governor Samuel Adams and Paul Revere.

The time capsule was opened at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 2015.

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    The Babylonian foundation inscriptions (see my answer) are explicitly addressed to future generations ("If any king ever will destroy this temple....") – fdb Aug 17 at 23:13
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    @fdb Those inscriptions contain curses aimed at any future generation that damaged or destroyed the temple or tablet. They actually appear to be addressed to the Gods, pointing out the worthy deeds of the kings who placed them there. See for example this article on the inscriptions held by the Glencairn Museum. More specifically, they were intended to be left in place forever, not to be found and removed by future generations. – sempaiscuba Aug 17 at 23:34
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    The article that you linked about the Glencairn Museum is highly informative. If you read through to the end you will see that a foundation inscription can very well be explicitly addressed to future kings. E.g. "you should be just like me, find an inscribed object of mine and (then) anoint (it) with oil, make an offering (and) place (it) with an inscribed object bearing your name. May the great gods, as many as are recorded on this inscribed object, constantly bless your kingship (and) protect your reign” – fdb Aug 18 at 9:57
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    @fdb yes, that formed part of the 'curse' on these texts, to be read if they happened to be found, and so ensure that they were left in situ. The intended audience, however, was the gods. As the article notes: "Through these long texts, the gods were informed of royal achievements, and reassured that the king acknowledged the importance of divine support for those achievements. ... This is why it was so important that future rulers not disrupt its magical benefits by destroying or removing it." The intent seems absolutely not to have been to "preserve objects for future discovery". – sempaiscuba Aug 18 at 11:45
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    I strongly doubt that these customs you describe are intended to "future archeologicists". It is more likely to be some magic rituals. – Alex Aug 18 at 18:44
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The ancient Sumerians and Babylonians, from about 3000 BC on, used to bury clay tablets in the foundations of their temples and other major buildings giving the name of the king who founded the temple and threatening to curse anyone who might in the future destroy the building. These inscriptions were not addressed to their contemporaries (they were buried underground) but to future generations. Not archaeologists, of course.

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

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    Interesting, but doesn't really answer the question "preserve-objects-for-distant-future-discovery". – Lars Bosteen Aug 18 at 4:05
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    @LarsBosteen How doesn't it? It's information preserved underground for future generations... – corsiKa Aug 18 at 4:50
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    @corsiKa They were warnings in case of discovery. They did not want to be discovered, but realised that they might be, hence the warning. The OP's main question clearly states his meaning to be in an archeaological context, and it's even stated 'not archaeologists' in the answer. – Lars Bosteen Aug 18 at 7:54
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    @o.m. They were intended to be found, and indeed searched for, in the event of the temple's destruction, which, in a land where buildings are made of dried mud is a very likely possibility. – fdb Aug 18 at 10:57
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    I like the answer (and up-voted it) but the motivation of the ancient Babylonians is far from being clear. They could mean some magic or address gods, not the "future generations". – Alex Aug 18 at 18:42
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The modern sense of the word "archaeology" is less than 200 years old. Antiquarianism is only 400 years old.

Thus, there can't be anything "intended for future archaeologists" more than 400 years old.

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    This assumes that "archaeology" and "antiquarianism" are both purely modern developments: that they have never gone in and out of fashion before. – Mark Aug 18 at 22:20
  • @Mark I provided a citation, and more than welcome an opposing citation demonstrating that the study of the past is much older than 1600. – RonJohn Aug 18 at 23:48
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    Systematic study of the past predates the modern discipline of archaeology by at least 2300 years. – Mark Aug 19 at 0:04
  • @Mark is "History" really the same as "Archaeology"? – RonJohn Aug 19 at 0:13
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    @RonJohn He didn't suggest that it was. You asked for demonstration that "the study of the past is much older than 1600" and that's exactly what was given. – TripleAntigen Aug 20 at 13:17

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